The story of today’s pirate, who is often known as “Lucifer”, is full of so much ambiguity that our anti-hero’s actual given name remains in question. He is usually called Diego with various monikers attached to that: Diego Lucifer, Lucifero or Diablo, Diego de Reyes, Diego Martin, Diego the Mulatto and, most common of all, Diego Grillo. His place of origin is also in question. Cuba claims him as born and bred in Havana while other writers see his origins in the Spanish colony of Mexico. All agree that Diego was of Spanish and African descent and that he – much like the more famous buccaneer madman Francois L’Olonnais – hated Spain and all that came from her.
Some careful researches put forth that Diego, what ever his real name may have been, was born in Campeche on the Gulf side of the Yucatan Peninsula. His father was a Spanish Criolo of some standing and his mother was at least partially African. What her status was, slave or free, entirely African or of mixed race, is unknown but even with a wealthy father, Diego’s African blood would have kept certain of Spanish society’s doors closed to him. This seems to be the sticking point that turned a privileged young man into a pirate. Some time in his youth Diego was offended by a Spaniard and, because of the highly stratified cast system in the Spanish New World, Diego could not have satisfaction. Unable to avenge himself on this individual, Diego went to sea to wreak his revenge on all that represented Spain to him.
The first hard evidence of Diego Grillo as a pirate turns up in 1626 when he is sailing in company with the Dutch freebooter Hendrick Jacobson. Jacobson (or Jakobzoon) was known as “the worst shark in the sea” and was often referred to by the Spanish along the Main as “Lucifer”. Where Diego learned to sail is unknown but it might be safe to say that he did some time in the merchant service prior to signing on board a pirate. My speculation is that Diego quite literally “ran off to sea” and, like so many others before and after him, turned criminal after realizing just how miserable working aboard a merchant vessel really was.
Jacobson died in 1627 and by that time, doubtless having learned from the old shark, Diego was ready to take command of his flagship Ter Veer. He sailed in and out of various ports, including Tortuga, Honduras, Havana (where he claimed his mother lived) and Providence, hitting Spanish shipping along the coast of Mexico in particular.
In 1633 his first big land raid occurred. Diego, some speculate returning for the revenge he nursed for years at sea, raided Campeche, plundering the city and burning the fort of San Benito. He killed the illustrious Captain of the Guard, Galvan, who some writers say was Diego’s godfather and may have been the very man who insulted him. An orgy of drunken mayhem ensued and for two days those Spanish citizens who could not or would not escape into the jungle were tortured for information on where their wealth was hidden.
Diego, for his part, spent the time searching for a certain army officer known as Calvo or Galvez. Diego ranted about cutting the man up, removing his ears and nose. This behavior has led certain researchers to conclude that Calvo was the source of Diego’s indignation. If so, the pirate was left unsatisfied: Calvo was never found.
In sharp contrast to his blood lust as Campeche, the story goes that when Diego sailed away from that wretched city he took a Spanish barco that was ferrying the recently widowed Dona Isabel Maldonado y Caraveo to Mexico City. When he discovered the lady and her retinue on board he moved her to his own cabin aboard his ship, treated her with all civility and saw to it that none of her things were plundered. He put she and her ladies safely on land just a few days later, although he did keep their ship for his own use.
Our pirate’s long career had only just begun, however. He is known to have sailed with boucanier Pierre le Grand the following year and Thomas Newman in 1636. In the 1640s he raided Sisal, Trujillo and other cities along the Yucatan, usually in concert with one or more of the Brethren of the Coast. He seems to have sailed with Francois L’Olonnais along the Darien coast and may very well have been among those who deserted the butcher to his fate, cut to pieces while still alive and forced to watch as the Natives burned his flesh to ashes. Or ate it; the stories vary. A Diego the Mulatto, most probably the same man, added his men and ships to Henry Morgan’s raids on Portobello and Panama.
Diego’s successes against the Spanish were so overwhelming that the enemy finally came courting. Spain offered Diego a pardon, money and the title of Admiral if he would stop his pillaging and sign on with the Empire. Diego bit his thumb at the Spanish crown and went back to the Yucatan to plunder more Spanish merchants. But time was not on Diego’s side and the Spanish had certainly had enough.
In 1673, after Diego’s capture of a Spanish ship led to the slaughter of 20 men aboard her because of their Spanish birth, the Crown put a serious effort into capturing the Mulatto. His partner in the heinous crime, Jan Lucas, was captured, sent to the dungeons at Veracruz and garroted without trial, probably after being tortured. Information thus rung from Lucas may have led to Diego’s capture as two months later he was in the hands of the Spanish authorities. The contemporary accounts are surprisingly silent on the details. All we know is that Diego Grillo, who was known by so many names, was hanged at Campeche for piracy.
Given his curious story, whose details may be all, half or no truth at all, maybe that is all we need to know.
Header: Pirates Boarding a Spanish Galleon by Howard Pyle